Thursday, August 30, 2007

Three things on my desk

One of our friends/acquaintances blogs for Cranium, and while checking out their blog I was tickled by their recurring "Three things on my desk" posts. It seems like Cranium has a lot in common with Google in this respect: fun office, creative people, sense of humour.

In honour of my team's move to our new building, and subsequent redecoration of our (awesome!) new space, here are three things on my desk:

  1. trophy 3rd place trophy from the search engine slot-car racing showdown at Alan's Vintage Tub & Bath-hosted dinner during SES! Too bad it was third out of three, hehe. :(
  2. pink flamingo pen Pink flamingo pen. Back when I worked in a café, we made everyone sign their credit card receipts with a pen just like this. Ahh, those were the days... It significantly lowered our pen-stealage rate, that's for sure.
  3. devil ducky Devil ducky. What office is complete without one of these?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Keep It Web Based, Even If You Don't Trust the Servers

John C. Dvorak recently wrote a scathing commentary of web based applications. He makes some great points, specifically about WGA having serious issues beyond technical difficulties, and the problems with single point of failure. But he goes on to declare that web based applications are flawed and that we could be at least as successful if we reversed the trend toward online services and returned to client-only applications. I think this conflates the issues, and I disagree with this attack on the vision of web based applications.

The problems due to single point of failure are caused by a failure of implementation. I want to focus on the vision aspect of Dvorak's article. The benefits of web based applications are due (among other things) to powerful, inherent concepts: available always, available anywhere, and available with anyone.

Available Always

Dvorak writes,
What happens if the system fails? The damage wouldn't be too bad if you backed everything up, but then why use the online system in the first place?

System failure, backup, and recovery are details which any software product should handle by itself, rather than Dvorak's model of "control your own data". Putting aside privacy issues for a moment, as a user I don't want to have to maintain my own data.

Consider the automatic save feature that's been built into Microsoft Office apps for a long time, and since then copied by many others. It's automatically saving everything you do, so you, as the user can focus on your work. However, even this just punts the issue to your hard disk which might fail at any moment. I have to confess, I don't back up my hard disk (who does?). Instead, I try to use systems which handle this piece for me as well. Web based systems are very well placed to do this, better even than client applications because the implementation and maintenance are completely in the hands of the service provider, rather than the user.

Available Anywhere

Dvorak also writes,
What happens if the timeline goes the other way? In this instance, you'd start with server-based online applications, and then suddenly a new technology—the desktop computer[appears...] "Now control your own data!" "Faster processing power now." "Cheaper!" "Everything at your fingertips." "No need to worry about network outages."

I believe that "everything at your fingertips" means I don't have to carry my own computer around with me everywhere. I love having my email client anywhere. I love having my blog writing software just a URL away. And my goal tracking software is available to me, no matter what computer I'm using. And I get consistent performance (nearly) every time for all of them. I don't need to worry about carrying my data on a memory stick. I don't need to worry about buying proprietary, licensed software. I just need the only thing I ever should: me. I need nothing else to be productive and get work done.

Available with Anyone

At one point Dvorak writes,
Easier to share files? So how hard is it to attach a doc file to an e-mail anyway?

Smooth collaboration goes beyond packing up your bytes and handing them over to someone else. Susan and I planned our whole wedding using Google Docs and Spreadsheets. If we had done this in a client-based spreadsheet app we would have ended up with at least 5 copies of the spreadsheet, all out of sync. The synchronization and collaboration features of web based applications were key to our success.

Back to the Failure

Towards the end of his article Dvorak writes,
What is often lost in individual analyses of how to proceed with your data-processing needs is the concept of "being at the mercy of a single company." It's something that you need to avoid at all costs.

He makes a really great point! We don't want to end up with single point of failure (through software or policy). However, and I won't dive into details, I believe that you don't have to "be at the mercy of a single company" to use "cloud computing". This is admittedly non-trivial, but there's a great start-up idea hiding here. In any case online service providers better get on board with this, since Dvorak is correct in this point.

In the end, I would argue that being at the mercy of a single computer, and, worse, at the mercy of a single person (i.e. yourself) is no better, if not worse, than being at the mercy of a single company. And that particular issue is surmountable itself, as I predict we will begin to see in the near future.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Traffic Building: Measure Your Readers

Identifying viewers, and what they want to read, is a really critical part of building traffic. Susan and I installed Google Analytics some time ago, so we've been tracking our traffic fairly consistently over the last six or so months. We get a pretty good view on where our traffic comes from (go Google organic search! including some keywords that I'm particularly proud of), and which content our readers are coming for (mainly front page; but, from me, also Welcome to Amazon's EC2 and Seattle Conference on Scalability).

Google Analytics and Feedburner are a couple of ideas for tracking site traffic. But I'm more interested in hearing what you have to say, so please comment and include why you read our blog (e.g. "Susan works at Google!" or "Nick is an awesome tech master!") and how you like to measure your traffic.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

How to Have a Successful Wedding, Part IV

Neither Nick nor I are particularly into religion or formalities, so—while the ceremony was touching and meaningful and all that—I think the part of the wedding that we were really looking forward to was the dinner, dancing, and spending time with our family and friends who had traveled from all over the country to party with us. So without further ado, Part IV:

The Party Is Where It's At

Our dinner, like much of the rest of our wedding, was informal: buffet-style, tables both indoors and outdoors, no seating chart, you just grab a plate and go sit with your friends. Or with the new in-laws. Or with the hot cousin that you were ogling across the aisle during the ceremony.

For the most part, this worked well; but if we had it to do over again, we might nix the outdoor seating. While a good idea in principle, I think the people outdoors felt like they were missing out on whatever might have been going on indoors (even though nothing was really going on). Other than that dinner was great; in particular, not having a seating chart made it easy for people to wander around, sit at two or three tables, and talk with a variety of people. It also meant we didn't have to deal with seating all our divorced couples at separate tables. (Remember, keep it simple...)

Personally, this was my favorite part of the evening. All my favorite dancing partners from all phases of my life—high school, college, and present—were there, and the best part of being the bride is that you can ask any man in the building to dance and they'll always say yes. You never have to sit out a dance if you don't want to.

Our DJ was really good at reading the crowd and tailoring his selections to what people liked to dance to. He'd given us the option to be very selective about our music, but (in the spirit of trusting our vendors) we just gave him broad categories of music that we wanted played, and let him do his thing. A lot of awesome swing, salsa, and merengue dancing ensued. And it was good.

For those (like Nick) who are less inclined to dance, a wedding is also a great opportunity to mingle. While I was busy dancing every dance, Nick was having fun being part of every conversation. (Really, he's the politer of the two of us; I would've liked to go around and acknowledge everyone who traveled to visit us, but there are only so many hours in the evening. I wonder if people ever have several-day-long weddings in order to have the time to talk with everyone?)

Actually, having been warned by numerous people about how "the evening will be over before you know it," I'd invited my best friends from high school and college to come out to Seattle several days early so that we could have time to really hang out in case I got monopolized by family at the wedding. I figured this would also give more of an incentive for them to make the long trip (many live on the East coast or in other countries), instead of just asking them to come for one evening of wedding. I'm really glad that many of them came out, because we had a great time. There's nothing like a pyjama party and board games the night before you get married!

So that's the wrap-up of our wedding. In essence, if you're planning a wedding, our best tip is to make it the event that you want. And—particularly if you're getting married anywhere near Bothell—feel free to contact us if you want more detailed advice!

Photos by Libbie Mistretta.
See also:
How to Have a Successful Wedding Part I, Part II, Part III

Saturday, August 25, 2007

How to Have a Successful Wedding, Part III

It would seem that, when it comes to wedding planning, Nick is the fox and I am the hedgehog. Hindsight leaves me with just one piece of advice to offer, but it's a big one:

Don't Stress Out

Let "Don't Stress Out" (and its corollaries: Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously, Be Lazy, and Be Irreverent) be your wedding mantra. The purpose of a wedding is to celebrate your relationship, right? In its essence it's a giant party, and a party should be fun. If, by the time it rolls around, you're sick of thinking about it and just want it to be over, it's not going to be a very joyous occasion. Don't let yourself become so focused on getting all the details perfect that you lose sight of the big picture. Relax, and be willing to relinquish control of the things that don't matter. Here are some good ways to reduce your wedding-related stress:

  • Trust your vendors.
    This is probably the first time you've gotten married, right? If not, it's probably the second or third. But this is the hundredth time that your vendors have photographed/DJ'ed/catered a wedding. They know what works well and what doesn't, what looks good and what doesn't, and what is supposed to happen when. Unless you know exactly what you want and will be devastated by anything that deviates from that vision, let your vendors know that you trust them to use their good judgment and to work out the details. This takes a lot of trivial decision-making off of your shoulders and transfers it to someone with a lot more experience.
  • Keep it simple.
    If you have five bridesmaids, you'll end up asking them all to wear the same dress, which at least four of them will inevitably resent. Why not just have one? Now she can buy her own dress, get something she likes (and feels pretty in), and that's one less process that you have to be involved in. Too lazy to decide between truffles or monogrammed shot glasses? Skip the party favours altogether! Is the presence or absence of table confetti going to significantly impact your enjoyment of the evening? If not, save your time (and money) for something that really matters.
  • Disregard 85% of your family's advice.
    When your grandmother insists that it would be a social faux pas not to invite her college roommate to your wedding, tell her she's wrong. When your aunt insists that not having assigned dinner seating will be a disaster, tell her you're doing it your way. If you don't capitulate to everything they tell you—and believe me, people love to give tons of unsolicited advice about your wedding—you'll be able to tell when someone is actually giving you good advice (it'll be during that ~15% of the time when they say "Actually, this one really is important...").
  • Don't forget to laugh.
    As Hedwig says: "I laugh, because I will cry if I don't." If you don't want to turn into a blubbering mess during your ceremony, go ahead and laugh. But Susan, you're saying, I can't laugh during a wedding! That's irreverent! Yes you can, dammit. It's your wedding, you can do whatever you damn well want to. You can stop in the middle of the aisle to tie your shoe if you want to. (Remember what Nick said about not having someone else's wedding?) Also, laughter sends you good endorphins and reminds you not to take the whole thing too seriously. If you need some comedic inspiration, check out Godawful Wedding Crap (a must-read for every discerning do-it-yourself bride or groom).

Note: Don't Stress Out is an equally effective philosophy during non-wedding-related periods of life.
See also:
How to Have a Successful Wedding Part I, Part II, Part IV

Thursday, August 23, 2007

How to Have a Successful Wedding, Part II

Yesterday I laid out some of what we did to plan for our wedding in the months (weeks, days) beforehand. Today I want to get into the topic that made the day really special: Personalizing Your Ceremony. Again I'll be linking to a vendor we used, but our experience can help guide you with whomever you're working.

A Special Day Needs to be Personal

This is a very special day, and so it should be personal and unique. Our general strategy was to lay out the ceremony we wanted to have, without concern for what other people wanted or expected. Then we revised that in order to incorporate important traditions for everyone's sake (remember: "the wedding isn't for you, it's for us" <tongue-in-cheek />). I'd say we made our day special in (at least) four different ways:

  1. We had our rings custom made by Fareed Abdulky. Fareed was really great to work with. It's clear that he cares about his customers. He's Ithaca based, which is where I grew up and both Susan and I went to school. And he did the engagement ring too. So these rings are really special and personal. We'd actually been to the other major custom jeweler in Ithaca and were pretty disappointed. But Fareed met with us personally from the very beginning and made exactly what we wanted: simple elegance (read: simple, but well crafted and special for us).
  2. We had family perform live music. Susan's mom (Kathy), aunt (Jann), de-facto aunt (Mary Kay), and father (John) all performed for us, together, for the first time in a long time. And, of course, we played a recording of "More" recorded by Susan's late great-grandfather. It was a really touching set of performances in a lot of ways, and for a lot of the guests. I'm still getting emotion-filled calls about it! So this made us really happy.
  3. We wrote our own vows. Everyone hears, "Do you, Nick, take Susan, to love and cherish [...] till death do you part". We didn't want to have everyone else's wedding! So we sat down and brainstormed some of what we thought will be the toughest challenges our marriage will face in the next umpteen years. Having done that, we came up with really good promises each of us must make and keep to one another. And we came up with a nice set of interlocking vows expressing as much. I'm actually pretty proud of what we've got, and we've got echoes of those vows engraved on our rings. So these really are our vows.
  4. We had a good friend, and excellent public speaker, officiate the ceremony. We took care of the civil paper-work ahead of time so that everyone attending the ceremony would be close to each of us. And our friend Zac was really amazing at the altar. I didn't realize how much work would have to go into this, and Zac really did a great job of it. He kept everything running smoothly and the comments he wrote were very beautiful. I had several people asking me who wrote them. I really owe Zac a big thank you (thank you!).

In all the ceremony turned out great. It was full of emotion and tears of joy. I thought my whole body was just going to collapse at a couple of moments. My heart still explodes just thinking about my bride walking up to the altar.

Photos by Libbie Mistretta.
See also:
How to Have a Successful Wedding Part I, Part III, Part IV

Saturday, August 18, 2007

How to Have a Successful Wedding, Part I

Susan and I finally did it! We tied the knot August 12, 2007 (last Sunday). This, and two weeks of vacation before that, might help to explain our almost complete lack of blogging for quite some time, sorry about that. To make up, here are pictures of our wedding.

While we weren't blogging we had an amazing time. We said our vows, exchanged our rings, listened to some special music, cried, laughed, and had a great time. And that was just the ceremony. So let me share with you what we did to have such a successful wedding, in several parts. Susan did about ten times the amount of work on all of this than I did, so maybe we can persuade her (please comment!) to blog about her experience too. God knows I have little sway over her these days. ;)

I should add that I am going to be referring you to our various vendors here. I think they were all really wonderful. It would not have been such a successful event without each and every one of them.

Planning Is Everything?

This is the conventional wisdom. I'm not going to contradict that per se, but I will say that it's easy to overdo it. We planned the following about seven months in advance and I think it was a good thing we did so:

  • The Ceremony and Reception Site. Don't be discouraged by the picture or their website. Monte Villa was awesome. Their staff was great from our first meeting all the way to keeping our glasses filled between crazy dancing. Lots of guests commented that having the ceremony and reception at the same site was really wonderful, so you might want to think about that when you're planning to bus your guests 30 minutes away to eat.
  • The Catering. Monte Villa exclusively uses Alexa's Catering as their caterer. This made planning and logistics much easier. It was nice to work with a staff that knew everything about the food and the site. The last thing you want to do is be freaking out because your caterer doesn't know where the kitchen is! I should note that a couple people mentioned that having the site and caterer in one might have meant we paid a little bit more. I can neither confirm nor deny this, though.
  • The Photographer. Libbie Mistretta was amazing. She was hip (which is important to Susan and me), she was nice (also very important), and she was really understanding (critical when everyone in your family wants twice as many formal photos as you do). You should check out her work and her blog.
  • The DJ. DJ Dan was the most surprisingly helpful. Not that he wasn't helpful to begin with (because he really was), but I wasn't expecting him to drive the reception as much as he did. But man, is it a good thing he did. You see, we had the whole ceremony planned out and then after cocktails we figured the thing would take care of itself (meaning first dance, toasts, cake, etc.). Thanks to DJ Dan, it did.
  • Guests! One of the most consistent pieces of...advice(?) I got was that "the wedding isn't for you, it's for us." That's really nice to hear as you plan to create a sacred union with your life partner, isn't it? But guests are important, and (of course) you'd better invite them early. We did invitations ourself from a kit we got at a certain large chain store. Use your imagination, I'm sure you can find one. And no, they were not super helpful, so they get no referral.

There was some other stuff we did in advance too, but the above is what I think we really had to do up front.

Hope this helps to (a) get a view into our planning experience, (b) validate your own wedding planning activities (if you're planning a wedding!), and (c) gives you some ideas.

See also: How to Have a Successful Wedding Part II, Part III, Part IV

Friday, August 3, 2007

When it rains, it pours

Wow. It's too bad I love working for Google so freakin' much, because This American Life is hiring!! A webmaster, no less! I totally want to apply for that job (right after I apply for this one, too). How come none of these were available back when I was struggling to get out of retail hell?